Al Jazeera offers its own take (literally) on SBC sex summit

A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.

Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.

I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.

Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.

There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.

The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”

OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:

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Burn baby burn!

Outrage is a tricky thing. The worldview a reporter brings to the coverage of a story, such as loathing or disgust, will color his account of the incident. For an American tabloid or British redtop we expect bias, sensationalism and outrage — faux or genuine.

But when should a reporter for a quality, mainstream newspaper seek out sources who can debate why an act is or is not evil?

A story dated March 24, 2014 in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Aborted babies incinerated to heat UK hospitals” prompts me to ask, “what’s all the fuss about?”

The lede states:

The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat. Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which health minister Dr Dan Poulter branded ‘totally unacceptable.’

The article summarizes the findings of a Channel 4 documentary produced by Dispatches entitled Exposing Hospital Heartache set for broadcast on March 24, summarizing its findings, and offering commentary from government health ministers. In addition to the Health Minister’s comment that “this practice is totally unacceptable,” we learn the NHS medical director has written to all state hospitals ending the practice. The Chief Inspector of Hospitals is quoted as saying:

I am disappointed trusts may not be informing or consulting women and their families. This breaches our standard on respecting and involving people who use services and I’m keen for Dispatches to share their evidence with us.

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GR reader contributes a little ghost-spotting of his own

You know that cliché about some stories writing themselves? Well, sometimes a reader fairly writes stories for us, too.

It came this past week with a brief e-mail by James Stagg, a friend of this blog. He called our attention to mostly excellent interview with the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory. Not without its issues, though. See below.

The Q&A-style interview, on Syracuse.com, has an adept triple news hook. For one, many people would be surprised that the Vatican even has an observatory. For another, as a priest and scientist, Coyne is chairman of religious philosophy at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school. And the college is in Syracuse, providing a local angle for the interview.

Coyne also gives a “snappy interview,” in Stagg’s words. We’re treated to inside info such as:

* The Vatican has two big working telescopes, neither of them in Italy.

* All 15 staffers with the Vatican astronomers are Jesuits.

* A meteorite laboratory and a library are part of the Vatican Observatory.

Why was the interview “mostly” excellent, then? Because of a “major ghost”spotted by Stagg himself. In the second-to-last paragraph, we see Coyne saying:

I have been a vocal opponent of intelligent design. It is not science, although it pretends to be. I am concerned that fundamentalist religious beliefs might continue to influence the role of science in the modern decision-making process.

“The reporter missed a BIG discussion about why Father Coyne opposes ‘intelligent design,’ which, as a Catholic priest, he should support in some form,” Stagg writes. “What he is actually opposed to is probably the teaching of “creationism,” which is fundamentalist in belief. BIG hole; otherwise good article.”

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Pod people: To the end of the secular universe and beyond!

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Imagine that you are caught in the middle of the following puzzle.

You are a journalist who works for a mainstream newspaper, broadcast network or wire service. According to decades of tradition about your craft, you are supposed to write news copy that ordinary Americans — some say middle-school level readers — can read and understand.

So you are sent to cover a story that is linked to a very complicated scientific event that, in order to understand it, would require people to grasp bites of scientific data as well as a complex concept or two. Now, the problem is that very, very few of the experts involved in explaining this scientific breakthrough speak ordinary English (or whatever language is spoken in the land in which this event is taking place).

Instead, they keep using terms that are very hard for journalists to quote, without bulking up their stories with lengthy explanations of what those terms mean. This assumes, of course, that the journalists can find qualified scientists who can provide said explanations without blurring the specifics to the point that the core scientists will consider the news report shallow or, even worse, inaccurate.

So the goal, here, is to produce news copy that is accurate enough to be granted a passing grade by elite scientists at Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, yet also can be understood by ordinary Americans reading a newspaper or, Lord help us, glancing at some version of the story on their smartphones.

Good luck with that.

Now, let’s raise the bar on that journalistic challenge — way high. We will get to the second part of this puzzle in a moment. It involves theology.

This is precisely the double-edged scenario that host Todd Wilken and I contemplated in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen), which focused — among other things — on the Washington Post daily story about that massive breakthrough, maybe, in Big Bang theory. It’s the story that started like this:

In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.

The universe created “transformed itself”?

As I wrote in the GetReligion post that launched the podcast:

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Universe gives birth to itself, transformed by unknown ‘force’

This is a challenging day to be a journalist on the science beat, if the goal is to avoid ultimate questions.

I am happy to report that The Washington Post — to my surprise, quite frankly — didn’t try to avoid the obvious. Here’s the top of its story on the Big Bang update that is making global headlines:

In the beginning, the universe got very big very fast, transforming itself in a fraction of an instant from something almost infinitesimally small to something imponderably vast, a cosmos so huge that no one will ever be able to see it all.

This is the premise of an idea called cosmic inflation — a powerful twist on the big-bang theory — and Monday it received a major boost from an experiment at the South Pole called BICEP2. A team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that it had detected ripples from gravitational waves created in a violent inflationary event at the dawn of time.

Say what? “In the beginning”?

Anyone who starts a story on this issue with “In the beginning” has to know that many American readers are going to connect that with, well, this passage that opens the Gospel of John:

1. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2. The same was in the beginning with God. 3. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Next question: What is the best verb here, science writers?

So the universe “got very big very fast, transforming itself” from nothing or next to nothing into something really big? It “transformed itself”?

To it’s credit, the Post team did not settle for one verb in its coverage of this amazing development. That same passage the opens the story also uses, well, the C-word. The gravitational waves were “created” in an event at the “dawn of time.” Yes, the word “created” certainly raises an obvious question or two. Later, the linguistic plot thickens:

Cosmology, the study of the universe on the largest scales, has already been roiled by the 1998 discovery that the cosmos is not merely expanding but doing so at an accelerating rate, because of what has been called “dark energy.” Just as that discovery has implications for the ultimate fate of the universe, this new one provides a stunning look back at the moment the universe was born.

And what existed before the universe “was born” and who, or what, gave birth?

Questions, questions, questions. At some point, the professionals behind this story needed to admit that this development raises questions that transcend science. Finally, there is this:

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Dying children don’t rate religious viewpoints

Belgium is on the map these days, and not for its waffles or Brussels sprouts. It’s for passing a law allowing children to have themselves killed.

Euthanasia is already legal there, but in mid-February the nation extended the “privilege” to children. As you might expect, there’s been much hand-wringing over the matter, such as on CNN or at ABC News.

The journalists there sought out educators, pediatricians and medical researchers. Naturally.

You know whom they didn’t ask? You got it: religious leaders. The ones who have dealt with issues of life and death, and beyond, since before the written word was invented.

How’s that working out? Well, we get some back-and-forth on the need for the law, although the two stories don’t handle the issues equally. Both raise the specter of children suffering unbearably with some disease like cancer. Both note that the law requires parental consent and counseling for the children, to make sure they understand what euthanasia means — “the child must understand the gravity of the request,” says ABC. But ABC appears to focus more on the general philosophy behind euthanasia; CNN brings up more reasons against it.

“I think there is such a thing as a futility in palliative care: that for some patients even the best palliative care will not suffice to ease their suffering,” Belgian sociologist Kenneth Chambaere tells ABC. He also “argues that in reality, Belgium will also have an age limit because of the strict competence and capability criteria.”

ABC reports that people also request euthanasia in Belgium for depression, and that a death wish may well be a symptom of dementia. The article goes into waiting periods and advance directives, neither of which have much to do with killing children.

The weird thing about the CNN story is one of the cases it brings up to illustrate why some people see a need for children’s euthanasia — a woman who was distraught over the prolonged death of her baby from a neurological illness:

“That whole period of sedation, you always need to give more and more medication, and you start asking questions. And you say, ‘What’s the use of keeping this baby alive?’ ” [Linda] van Roy said.

She wishes she could have administered a fatal dose of medication to make the end of her daughter’s short life come more quickly.

That’s why she’s campaigning for a change to Belgium’s euthanasia laws, to give the choice of ending their suffering to older children whose bodies are wracked with pain.

An accompanying video shows the mother and her dying child and, shockingly, cuts to a Belgian doctor who says that the euthanasia law would just legalize what some doctors already do.

This despite the fact that, as ABC points out, the baby, who died at 10 months, “would never have qualified for euthanasia.” So the mother pushes for a law to enable children to end the kind of prolonged death her baby underwent, even though the law wouldn’t have affected the baby? Sounds like logic works no better in Brussels than in Washington, D.C. Might there be another side to quote in that debate linked to faith and ethics?

At least CNN lines out several secular reasons against euthanasia for children. Among them: Medicine now provides for pain management; few children will ever ask to die; most medical teams caring for terminally ill children wouldn’t believe that children make a “spontaneous and voluntary demand” for euthanasia.

Most tellingly, CNN quotes a nurse’s belief “that giving children a choice would mean they made decisions based on what they thought their families wanted to hear, and that it would be a terrible strain for children who may already feel they are a burden to their caregivers.”

What does God think of all this?

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Fetal distraction: Spinning abortion numbers

Abortions have fallen to their lowest rate since the Supreme Court enshrined it as a constitutional right in 1973, according to a new report by the Guttmacher Institute: 16.9 abortions for every 1,000 women between 15 and 44, versus 16.3 per 1,000 women back in 1973.

Why this is happening is another matter. Cue the media debates.

Guttmacher offered a few explanations. One was the improvement in contraceptives including IUDs. Another was the well-known deferral in childbearing by many couples. Still another was the rise in early abortions induced by chemicals, from six percent of all abortions in 2001 to 23 percent in 2011.

You can probably guess one reason the institute didn’t consider: Because a lot of women might consider it wrong. That may be because of leakage from its activism wing. As its own research announcement said:

“Over the past three years, we have seen an unparalleled attack on abortion rights at the state level, and these new restrictions are making it harder for women to access services and for providers to keep clinic doors open,” says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at Guttmacher. “As we monitor trends in abortion going forward, it is critical that we also monitor whether these state restrictions are preventing women who need abortion services from accessing them.”

Guttmacher’s defensiveness is rather puzzling. Despite the drop in abortions, most Americans told Gallup in January that they don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned. And outright opponents of legalized abortion have been slowly dwindling since at least 1989. “Today’s views are neither as conservative as they were in 1975 nor as liberal as they were in the early 1990s, but are about average for the entire time frame,” the Gallup study says.

The Washington Post’s piece on the matter did include the other side. One articulate quote:

“This is a post-sonogram generation,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, the group behind many of the new state limits on abortions. “There is increased awareness throughout our culture of the moral weight of the unborn baby. And that’s a good thing.”

The Post does stumble in reporting on state-passed restrictions.

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All the experts say evolution story lacks WHAT!?

Define terms.

Identify sources.

The best journalism recognizes the importance of doing both — particularly on complicated and controversial subject matters.

On the other hand, the Austin American-Statesman embraces neither concept in a news story reporting that “critics” say students are being taught creationism in two public high schools.

Let’s start at the top:

A charter-school operator with contracts to teach at two Austin high schools has come under fire for questioning evolution in its science curriculum — the latest in a long line of clashes over Christianity in Texas classrooms.

Advocates for the separation of church and state say that Responsive Education Solutions — one of the state’s largest charter operators, which the Austin school district partners with at Lanier and Travis high schools — is pushing creationism.

For example, the biology curriculum, obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, says: “Many leading scientists are questioning the mechanisms of evolution and are disputing the long timeline required for evolutionary processes.”

Experts say that is untrue. What’s more, they say, discrediting evolution invites students to consider creationism as an alternative.

The latest in a long line of clashes over Christianity in Texas classrooms. What clashes are we talking about? The story never elaborates.

Advocates for the separation of church and state. Who are these critics making these allegations? The newspaper never names them.

Pushing creationism. In the context of this story, how would “creationism” be defined? Are we talking about “Young Earth creationism” or “Old Earth creationism?” Are we talking about intelligent design?

Experts say that is untrue. One biology professor — presumably an expert — is quoted later in the story. Would “an expert says that is untrue” be more accurate? Or are there other experts who aren’t named? And would any “experts” disagree? (Even better, maybe the story should establish named sources as “experts” rather than crown them as such?)

Later in this story, there’s this:

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